Ghost Story from Sea Scout Ship Odyssey: The Lavender Ghost
By Victoria Pann on August 18, 2012
The Sea Scout Ship Odyssey is a 90 foot sailing ship originally owned by the Henry family. Mrs. Henry was a Vanderbilt granddaughter and word was that she loved lavender, but that is not who the story is about.
It is hard to believe that a beautiful wooden sailboat like the Odyssey could be commandeered by the US Navy, but that’s what happened. Never mind that she was a sleek racing vessel that won all kinds of trophies racing in Long Island Sound, or that she had sailed down to Cuba while the family visited with Ernest Hemingway, nor that she went clear out to the Galapagos so the family could see tortoises. No, the US Navy had to have her and that was that. It was World War II after all, and people did their bit, even if it meant giving over such a fine boat.
The Henry family was able to keep the hand carved panels that depicted the Iliad and Odyssey adventures. The Navy took out the little coal fireplace, the charming little piano, and the lush upholstery. They drilled holes in the woodwork, set up their instruments, and rechristened her the Saluda. There was a job to do, and she stepped up to it.
After the war, the Saluda spent some time in San Diego. Among those who served was a young sailor named Tom Wilkinson. Tom was engaged to the lovely Donna Marie Clark from back home in Iowa, and Miss Clark wrote Tom creatively tantalizing letters full of all sorts of youthful l’amour. She drew lips on the envelope. She loved lavender too, and when it was blooming, put sprigs in the letters. The other sailor urged him to read them aloud, and he did sometimes, at least the parts he wouldn’t get teased about.
One night they had a fierce wind. The sailboat would tip pretty far over. Winds would come up from hurricanes off the coast of Baja and pack a punch. They called these the “Pineapple Express” because of their tropical origin, which makes them sound more benign than they really are. But the sailors finished their duties at the end of the night, tied up the boat and walked home to the barracks.
The next night, they were ready to get underway, and Tom did not show up. They sent someone back to the barracks to check on him, but it turns out Tom’s bed hadn’t been slept in.
There was never any proof that he went AWOL, or that he ran off to Iowa to be with Donna Marie Clark. He never contacted her, and it was felt that he would have. He never contacted his parents or his brother.
The nearest they can figure was that he slipped overboard, and they didn’t hear him cry out in the wind. The last person to see him alive said he was below and wasn’t wearing a lifejacket when they saw him, although they were supposed to when they went on deck. The Coast Guard went out to look for a body but never found one.
It wasn’t long after that when the lavender started appearing. Sailors would open a hatch and there would be lavender strewn around in it. They would open a cupboard in the galley and there would be a sprig of lavender on every can. Someone would open a drawer and it would be filled with lavender.
Eventually the US Navy sold the boat to the Sea Scouts, and it was rechristened the Odyssey again. The Henry family reinstalled the hand carved panels of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
But even today, we open hatches and find a sprig of lavender on every can. A sprig will appear on the chart table, or a drawer will be filled with lavender. If you are working alone on the boat, you might hear footsteps on deck and there is no one there, or you might hear someone reading aloud in the foc’sle and find no one.
We all wear lifejackets on deck, especially after dusk. We don’t mind The Lavender Ghost, though. Like a lot of sailors that love of the sea, he’s a romantic. Rather like Odysseus.
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